Is capitalism biblical?

Is capitalism biblical? April 28, 2016

JOHN’S QUESTION:

It has always been my understanding from Proverbs (condemning the “sluggard”), and Paul’s instruction that missionaries earn their keep and not be a burden, that the Bible encouraged hard work and a responsibility to give of our blessings to the poor — personal responsibility vs. government responsibility. The trend toward government socialism seems to discourage that. Is capitalism biblical?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In America, it’s springtime for socialism. A Harvard survey of those ages 18 – 29 showed 33 percent support socialism compared with 42 percent for capitalism, and socialist support reached 50 percent among Democrats. A poll of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers found 43 percent considered themselves socialist vs. 38 percent capitalist. Sliding regard for big business accompanies the related success of Socialist-plus-Democrat Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Sanders is arguably the most secularized candidate ever to wage a major presidential run (can you name any competitors?). Even so, he was the only U.S. politician the Vatican invited to speak at an April economics conference (Sanders cited no Bible verses), where he briefly met Pope Francis. That was called a courtesy, not endorsement, but the pontiff appears soft on socialism, which sets conservative Catholics abuzz.

Francis joins previous popes in teaching biblical tenets of concern toward the needy and against the sins of greed and materialism. But he’s more outspoken than his predecessors in assailing free markets and urging government redistribution of wealth. Given Poland’s experience, John Paul II was understandably cooler toward state collectivism in his important 1991 economics encyclical Centesimus Annus. (For more on modern popes and economics see www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/05/pope-francis-on-economics-how-innovative-how-savvy.)

Through history, biblical believers have practiced all sorts of economies. Catholicism defends private property under the scriptural commandment “you shall not steal,” though not as an absolute right divorced from “the common good.” Democratic forms of socialism are popular with Catholic and Protestant Europeans. But churches have mostly spurned one version of socialism, Communism, due to its human rights abuses and hatred toward religion.

Although Scripture shaped the thinking of John Paul and Francis, they cited no Bible passages in the hundreds of footnotes to Centesimus and Francis’ first social encyclical Laudato Si (2015). Specifically, what does the Bible say? A few observations:

In Acts 2:44-45 the rush of idealism among the small band of earliest Christians produced a voluntary quasi-communism: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” That practice wasn’t mandatory and died out, but charity toward those inside and outside the fellowship was a Christian hallmark. The biblically zealous “Pilgrims” who settled Plymouth colony operated a communal economy but then a switch to private property “had very good success for it made all hands very industrious,” Governor Bradford wrote.

The questioner is correct that the Bible repeatedly commends personal effort and thrift plus personal charity. However, Scripture teaches no sharp distinction between “personal” vs. “government” responsibility and it established charity systems under law. For example, harvesters left gleanings and the corners of fields so the poor could obtain food through their own work (Leviticus 23:22).

As that example indicates, generalized charity remains in force but it’s hard to draw straight lines between biblical economics and the 21st Century. Ancient people overwhelmingly worked and held assets in subsistence farming, with some few in other occupations. But U.S. agriculture encompassed less than half the population by 1880 and, today, less than 2 percent. A complex international system of trade, finance, and manufacture now leads to the “knowledge economy.”

Other Old Testament examples: God’s people were told to leave each plot of land untilled one year out of seven (Leviticus 25:1-7) during which the needy could eat any produce (Exodus 23:11). In the “jubilee” every 50 years the poor could reclaim property they were forced to sell (Leviticus 25:47-55). Scott Rae of Talbot School of Theology says these laws “cannot be directly applied today” because “very few people are tied to the land to make their living.” Also, every seventh year outstanding debts were canceled so “there will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:1-10).

Biblical tithing (donated tenths of income) both supported religious workers and helped the needy. Biblical law barred Jews from charging interest on loans to fellow Jews (Deuteronomy 23:19-20 and other passages) and subsequent Christians upheld this absolute prohibition. But John Calvin and other Protestants, followed by Catholicism, redefined this to forbid unfair interest under modern economics.

If the Bible advocates both public and private provision for those who cannot help themselves, what’s the best system for post-agricultural society? Theologian Michael Novak, a youthful socialist, reshaped Catholic thinking with “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” (1982). His central theme was the evidence showing free markets foster unparalleled economic growth, which aids the dispossessed along with everyone else.

Reflecting on the book last year, Novak said he’s often misunderstood. He favors state welfare as needed and government’s role in tempering private markets. But he insists prosperity necessarily requires economic liberty combined with liberties of politics, religion, conscience, arts, sciences, and cultural expression. He has also observed that during the past century Pope Francis’ homeland of Argentina crippled its favorable prospects and is “not yet capitalist.”

A final biblical note. People often cite the biblical maxim that “money is the root of all evil.” However, the actual text says “the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:10). Otherwise, the Bible treats wealth as a divine gift (e.g. Ecclesiastes 5:19).

 

 

 

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